After 23 years as a stay-at-home mom, divorce dramatically altered Marlene O. Smith's life. A registered nurse, she could have resumed her former profession. But a friend in the payments business invited her on some sales calls, and she decided to give the business a whirl.
After her first deal, Smith was hooked. That was five years ago; now she is an independent agent representing Advanced Merchant Group. In this interview, Smith discusses why she works for a registered ISO, why you can't judge a business by its exterior and the perils of serving a furrier.
The Green Sheet: What do you like best about your career, and what's been most challenging?
Marlene O. Smith: The residual income is great. I do like this career because I am a people person. I do a lot of cold calls in a day and love being out conversing with merchants. The most challenging part of this career is to be self-disciplined.
GS: How has the industry changed since you started?
MS: Interchange pricing, equipment leasing, free-terminal programs and merchants' becoming more knowledgeable about their processing have affected merchant level salespeople [MLSs]. In addition, there are so many more interchange buckets. When I see my residual statements now, I get paid on 240 interchange categories.
GS: What has kept you in the industry?
MS: Being a registered nurse and working 40 hours per week, I could only make a certain amount of money each month. In this business, I set appointments to my schedule. I know how many merchants I have to sign to increase my income.
I have total control over my hours, income, golf schedule and vacation time. That is a great feeling. What I am most excited about now is that we are going to receive residual income on Discover and American Express now that they are going to an interchange-type program.
GS: If you could change anything about this business, what would it be?
MS: The sales reps that get into this business for a short period of time to make extra income and tell merchants anything to get deals signed. In the past five years, I have seen so many merchants getting taken advantage of.
I feel all MLSs should be registered or licensed plus required to have continuing education because of the changes in interchange. And only registered ISOs should be able to recruit sales agents. There should also be a Web site or lists where all new agents could go to view registered ISOs.
GS: Describe a typical day in your life.
MS: Monday and Tuesday are office days to set appointments for Wednesday and Thursday. I have to have at least six appointments set for each day.
I drive at least 50 to 100 miles one way to see merchants. I am not in a big city, so to acquire merchants I do have to travel. I am not one to stay in the office and write deals over the phone.
I will also make at least 10 to 12 cold calls when I am on the road. When I get back to the office, I enter the notes from the cold calls and send out the deals I wrote. Friday I do follow-up calls, paperwork and downloads.
GS: What's been your greatest success as an agent?
MS: When I started in this business five years ago, I was told, "These are the rates; anything over these rates you get paid on." In a three-year period my partner and I put 450 accounts on the books, and I was getting about a 10% residual.
I knew there was more money to be made but didn't know how to do it. The office I worked for told me there were no publications or articles about this business. I knew I was in big trouble.
After attending a show for one of our vendors, I met another processor with which I am currently working. That really opened my eyes.
It was a difficult decision to leave what I had started from scratch. But in the last two years, I have more than doubled my residuals and have put over 200 merchants on the books.
GS: Do you have any other success stories you'd like to share?
MS: While making cold calls one day, I drove by this business a couple of times and said to myself, "That is a small retail shop. I don't think they do much volume." I didn't stop. A few weeks later, I was not having a good day with cold calls. I decided to visit this business. Not expecting much, I asked to speak to the owner. An elderly woman behind the counter stood up and said, "You have to talk to my son. He is two buildings over." As I drove up to what turned out to be a warehouse, I realized this was no small business, but rather a large company.
The owner saw me on the spot, and I signed this company a few weeks later. This merchant's volume was anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 per month. Never underestimate a business because of its outside appearance.
GS: What has been your most significant learning experience?
MS: Working for an unregistered ISO and having my entire residual stream withheld when I decided to write for another office. I am currently in litigation with that ISO's owner.
GS: What's the funniest sales experience you've ever had?
MS: When signing merchants, beware of their merchandise. I signed up a furrier about a year ago. While there, I decided to purchase a new fur. I am still waiting for the residual from that merchant to come back into the plus. However, the fur is great.
GS: What is unique about your sales style/method?
MS: I am not a high-pressure salesperson. I am very honest, and I explain everything to merchants. (I cannot believe how many merchants don't know they pay more for keyed-in transactions.)
I always follow up and keep in touch with ... merchants every three months.
GS: How do you generate leads?
MS: I generate all my own leads through cold calling _ either on the phone or in person _ referrals and networking. I also do some direct mailing, which I don't find as productive as cold calling. Referrals are my greatest source of leads because my merchants know that they can call me any time, and I answer all their questions directly.
GS: What types of merchants do you prefer to work with?
MS: I generally work with mom-and-pop retailers. I do some corporate accounts, which I am looking to increase this year. A corporate account takes a lot of your time, and there is no guarantee that you are going to get the account.
GS: Do you think there will always be street sales?
MS: Yes. Merchants like to be face to face with the people they are buying from. They like to know they can call you if there is a problem and speak to you directly and not a machine.
GS: What do you think about "selling" free terminals?
MS: I do not sell free terminals. As I tell my merchants, nothing is for free.
GS: What does it take to succeed in this business?
MS: Goals, self-discipline, honesty and follow-up with merchants. Also, the determination to succeed. I strive to write at least 10 deals per month, and it's a game for me to see if I can do this.
If I only write eight one month, I know I have to do 12 the next month. I like to challenge myself.
GS: What is your experience with agent training? What would a good training program consist of?
MS: Good agent training would be to have your agents understand interchange, know how to break down a statement and what to look for on statements (very important), and be able to fill out an application. Most of all, educating them on how to respond to the questions they will encounter when on the streets. I also take new agents on the road with me for the first two weeks to let them see how I do the business.
GS: How should an MLS go about choosing an ISO partner?
MS: First and foremost, only work with a registered ISO. I always ask about a company's customer service department and support, too. I do not want my merchants on hold for 20 minutes and not getting help when they need it.
The other important thing is the compensation package and residual stream. Make sure you get paid on all 200-plus residual streams. And ask to see the reporting system for your residuals.
GS: Did you know enough about industry contracts before you signed one? Please elaborate.
MS: I know enough about the industry contracts now. I would recommend an attorney in this field read over a contract before you sign it.
I feel it is difficult for the average accountant or attorney to be beneficial in our industry because it is so complex.
GS: How has The Green Sheet helped you?
MS: The Green Sheet has saved me in this industry. It has provided me knowledge to share with merchants, new products, services and resources to find any kind of help you may need.
GS: Any advice for newcomers?
MS: Behind every no there is a yes. You cannot get discouraged in this business. Hard work will eventually pay off; you will see your residual income grow.
GS: What hobbies do you enjoy?
MS: I love golf, skiing, bowling, deer hunting and gardening, and I love to play poker.
GS: What's your greatest dream?
MS: My greatest dream would be to have my three sons get into this business. The possibilities are endless.
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